Annapurna: First Conquest of an 8000-meter Peak by Maurice Herzog, translated from the French by Nea Morin and Janet Adam Smith, 4/5
I’m not particularly interested in the topic of mountaineering, but have read a wide enough variety of books to realize that a good author can make any subject fascinating. My gamble paid off in this case; Herzog is a competent writer and his passion shines clearly in this intense tale of the 1950 French Annapurna expedition’s journey to the heart of the Himalayas, preliminary exploration, eventual summit, and harrowing return to civilization. The more dry, technical sections are supplemented by helpful maps and photos, including a large map of climbing routes printed on the inside of the dust cover. This is clearly a high-quality book that was prepared with great attention to detail.
I would recommend this book, along with Kon-Tiki, The Voyage of the Beagle, and Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic as great for armchair adventuring and representative of a golden era when unthinkably brave men put their lives on the line in the name of exploration and were heroes to the general public. One can only assume that such people still exist, but they certainly aren’t making the front page of the news like they used to. While I appreciate living a life of safety and comfort, there is something about the concept of risking it all to find ultimate fulfillment, so well-expressed in Herzog’s foreword, that strikes a chord deep inside me.
In overstepping our limitations, in touching the extreme boundaries of man’s world, we have come to know something of its true splendor. In my worst moments of anguish, I seemed to discover the deep significance of existence of which till then I had been unaware. I saw that it was better to be true than to be strong. The marks of the ordeal are apparent on my body. I was saved and I had won my freedom. This freedom, which I shall never lose, has given me the assurance and serenity of a man who has fulfilled himself. It has given me the rare joy of loving that which I used to despise. A new and splendid life has opened out before me.”
-Maurice Herzog, foreword to Annapurna
And that language from a man who lost all of his toes and most of his fingers from frostbite!
Further research revealed quite a bit of controversy about the accuracy of Herzog’s account, but I’m willing to chalk any inconsistencies up to fallible memory, oxygen deprivation and extreme trauma.
Why I read it: A thrift store find, I think. The cover is very heroic, so I thought it might be worth a try.
The Song of Roland, translated by Frederick Goldin, 5/5
I can’t say I enjoyed reading this second translation of the epic poem as much as the first, but that is probably not a reflection of each version’s merit so much as the fact that reading The Song of Roland twice in two weeks is too much. Goldin’s translation is longer and seems much more true to the original from a grammatical point of view, but I found it to be less accessible than Luquiens’ version, which is more emotional and dramatic, while being less wordy. There is a sort of Old Testament rhythm and repetitive style to Goldin’s work that made it difficult not to zone out while reading.
Here is the opening laisse from each version for comparison:
Charles the King, our Emperor, the Great,
has been in Spain for seven full years,
has conquered the high land down to the sea.
There is no castle that stands against him now,
no wall, no citadel left to break down–
except Saragossa, high on a mountain.
King Marsilion holds it, who does not love God,
who serves Mahumet and prays to Apollin.
He cannot save himself: his ruin will find him there. AOI.
-Translated by Frederick Goldin
Charles the great King, lord of the land of France,
Has fought beyond the hills for seven years,
And led his conquering host to the land’s end.
There is but one of all the towns of Spain
Unshattered–grim Saragossa, mountain-girt,
Held by Marsila, King of Spain, of those
Who love not God and serve false gods of stone
Brought from the shores of Araby.–Happless King!
Your hour is come, for all your gods of stone.
-Translated by Frederick Bliss Luquiens
The Song of Roland, translated by Frederick Bliss Luquiens, 5/5
This epic tale of the betrayal and death of Roland at the hands of the Saracens clearly belongs in the company of other great epics, such as Gilgamesh, the Iliad and Beowulf. There is a timelessness and inevitability to the events in this poem that make you forget for a while that mythical heroes don’t walk the earth (though villains of mythical stature seem to). In my opinion, Luquiens’ translation in unrhymed iambic pentameter is tasteful and conveys poetic beauty without pretension.
Why I read it: one of those famous works I’d heard about but never actually read. Update: now I’ve read two versions–here’s a link to my review of the second.
This might be the strangest and most ingenious premise for a book I have ever seen–even after reading it, I still don’t really see how it’s possible. It is a collection of poems written in French that, when read aloud, sound like Mother Goose rhymes being read in English with a thick French accent. The author supplies entertaining footnotes that attempt, with varying degrees of success, to make sense of the “original” French.
Here’s an example for “Little Bo Peep”:
Little Bo Peep
has lost her sheep
and doesn’t know where to find them;
leave them alone and they will come home
wagging their tails behind them.
Lille beau pipe
Ocelot serre chypre
En douzaine aux verres tuf indemne
Livre de melons un dé huile qu’aux mômes
Eau à guigne d’air telle baie indemne.
Why I read it: My friend, Alison (whose own book, Entropy Academy, is soon to be released), gave this book to me while I was taking a French language class. Hearing the verses read aloud in her English accent was a hilariously bizarre experience.
N.B. There is a German version of this concept called Mörder Guss Reims.